OAKLAND, Calif. — Some 240 supporters helped to celebrate the 40th anniversary of a cherished East Bay agency on Sept. 10, taking a video tour of the agency’s past while gaining some insight into its evolving future.
And while the organization went through a name change and rebranding of its mission over the past year, it remains committed to serving both seniors and the ever-changing Japanese American community.
J-Sei, formerly known as Japanese American Services of the East Bay (JASEB), held its celebration of four decades at Scott’s Seafood in Oakland’s Jack London Square. The event, emceed by NBC Bay Area weekday traffic anchor Mike Inouye, brought together old friends and new.
“When I first joined J-Sei a year ago, I was very impressed,” said J-Sei Executive Director Diane Wong. “If we weren’t here, I don’t think there’s another organization who could step in and do what we do.”
Wong thanked sponsors of the dinner and the “small and mighty” J-Sei staff.
The Berkeley, Calif.-based nonprofit serves some 2,200 lunches per year, and logs some 460 volunteer hours every month. The agency has a Senior Center offering various classes, a Saturday Morning Series of discussions and case management that helps to find solutions to promote independence and well-being.
Rooted in Community Activism
The roots of the organization go back to an era marked by student and community activism.
“J-Sei was founded by a group of students … fueled by the idealism of the ‘60s,” said board member and event co-chair Jo Takata, noting that the students wanted to get in touch with their roots. “They planned outings … They wanted to learn their identities from the Issei.”
Then known as East Bay Japanese for Action (EBJA), the group got together for lunch and activities for the seniors in 1971. The fledgling organization established a nutrition program serving Japanese lunches, and providing bilingual case management services.
In the 1980s, Takata noted, the East Bay Issei Housing was formed, and merged with the EBJA to form JASEB. One of their early accomplishments was the establishment of a 100-unit affordable apartment complex for seniors, Eden Issei Terrace in Hayward, Calif., in 1983.
Also, two homes were formed for “cooperative care,” Takata said.
The organization has continued to evolve. Using focus groups, it embarked on strategic planning that would make historic changes to its mission.
Under the leadership of board President Bruce Hironaka, who stepped in as acting executive director through parts of 2008 to 2010, the organization went through perhaps its first strategic planning process in its history from the spring of 2009 to the early part of 2010. The process consisted of six focus groups, meeting with its member organizations, numerous committee meetings and a review of secondary sources of information.
“From the strategic planning process, the board determined that the agency faced some fundamental challenges that needed to be addressed and that the continuation of doing many things essentially in the same way for much of the agency’s history needed to be modified to reflect changes in our community and the world around us,” Hironaka told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “It also became abundantly clear to the board that the current funding model of the agency was not sustainable in order to provide the needed services to our seniors.”
The end result, Hironaka said, “reflects a broader purpose for the agency.”
“The focus groups told us that the agency should continue to fulfill its historical mission to serve seniors in our community, but that we should also broaden our reach by becoming an institution that serves to promote and impart Nikkei culture, traditions, history and values to families and the various generations in our community,” Hironaka said.
And thus, a newly expanded mission statement was born that describes J-Sei as “a multi-cultural and multi-generational organization that has its roots in Nikkei values and culture.” While the organization is “proud of our history of providing care and assistance to seniors,” it has “expanded our services and programs to include families and younger generations,” the mission statement continued.
After what Hironaka calls an “extensive rebranding process,” JASEB changed its name to “J-Sei,” a name that “cannot be found in a dictionary,” English or Japanese, he said.
“The ‘J’ does not necessarily stand for Japanese, but we are pleased that some members of the community see it as meaning such and others do not,” said Hironaka. “In short, we wanted to create an updated, revitalized identity for the agency to reflect our expanded mission.
“We also created a new logo and a new tagline — Community Care Culture — to further enhance the rebranding/repositioning of the agency,” added Hironaka.
But the name, logo and mission aren’t the only changes with the organization over the past year.
About the same time as the name change, J-Sei hired Wong to head the staff. Wong, who has a master’s of social work degree, brings more than 20 years of nonprofit experience, including being the first executive director of Alzheimer’s Services of the East Bay.
The agency also recently closed its two cooperative care homes, Channing Way House and Cypress Home.
Senior Home Reborn
Given the existing need in the community, however, J-Sei recently opened the J-Sei Home, a 14-bed licensed residential care facility for elderly “based on Nikkei traditions with an emphasis on Japanese and Asian meals” at the site of the former Cypress Home.
“We remodeled, updated and created more rooms,” Wong told the Nichi Bei Weekly, noting the differences in the new J-Sei Home compared to its predecessor. “It looks so much nicer and has better adaptations for older adults.“
The agency fully owns the J-Sei Home, while it remains equal partners with Eden Housing for the Eden Issei Terrace property.
Stan Yogi, the keynote speaker at the 40th anniversary dinner, called the movement from JASEB to J-Sei “forward looking.” He paralleled it to the past struggles for civil liberties he documented in his book, “Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California.”